Science Forgeries and Frauds

Greed for money and fame. Here are just a few.

Paluxy FootprintsYear: 1939 Originally appeared in: "Thunder in his Footsteps" by Roland T. Bird in Natural History Now appears in: "History of Science: Fossil Proboscidians and Myths of Giant Men" by James L. Hayward in Transactions of the Nebraska Academy of Sciences (Also discussed in Quest for the African Dinosaurs by Louis Jacobs) The worst thing about this hoax is how many people still fall for it. In the 1930s, American Museum paleontologist Roland T. Bird paid a visit to the Paluxy River limestone beds near Glen Rose, Texas, to see a spectacular dinosaur trackway. Bird's visit came during the Depression, and some locals decided to sell tracks from the region in hopes of making some much needed cash. They quickly figured out it would be easier to carve footprints than dig up the real things, and that it would be more interesting to carve giant human footprints than dinosaur tracks. A fraud is a glowing success when it tells people what they want to believe, and many biblical literalists embraced this so-called evidence that humans and dinosaurs coexisted. Truth is, we missed each other by about 65 million years.

Sea SerpentYear: 1845 Con artist: "Dr." Albert Koch Originally published in: Hydrarchos Now appears in: Monsters of the Sea by Richard Ellis This illustration accompanied Albert Koch's description of a "gigantic fossil reptile" 114 feet long. In truth, Koch pieced together the bones of five fossil whales, then showed the specimen in the U.S. and in England. The hoax was exposed on both sides of the Atlantic.

Composite fossilYear: 1997 Con artist: Unidentified Chinese fossil collector (who might not have known he was defrauding anyone) Originally published in: National Geographic Magazine, November, 1999 issue For more information: National Geographic Magazine, October, 2000 issue (Photo by O. Louis Mazzatenta), Nature Magazine, February 17, 2000 issue, Unearthing the Dragon by Norell and Ellison In 1997, a Chinese farmer found an exquisite birdlike fossil with faint feather impressions. A couple yards away, he found a lizardlike fossil tail. He took these and other finds home, glued the pieces together, then sold the result to a local dealer. To the farmer, it looked like a nice, complete fossil, which would bring him a little more money than shattered pieces. To less-than-careful eyes, the composite looked like a missing link between dinosaurs and birds. Over the next two years, the composite fossil made its way into the hands of a loose association of amateur dinosaur enthusiasts, professional paleontologists and National Geographic editors. With unprecedented achievement in lousy communication, various members of this group purchased the fossil for $80,000, insured it for $1.6 million, proudly announced the new species Archaeoraptor liaoningensis, then eventually wished they'd never seen the little fossil. Added to the embarrassment was the near certainty that it had been illegally smuggled out of China, a fact which — to its credit — National Geographic insisted be remedied before it agreed to publish the find. (The fossil was eventually repatriated.) The original plan was to describe the fossil in a peer-reviewed publication — a contingency that National Geographic gambled on — but after the paper was rejected by both Nature and Science, National Geographic didn't have time to pull the article. The magazine ignored its policy of awaiting publication in a peer-reviewed paper and announced the find. Just a few months later, Xu Xing, a collaborator in the research announced the bad news, and confirmed what a few others had quietly suspected: The fossil was a composite. In fact, it was a composite of 88 pieces. Finger pointing ensued. Creationists loved it. But as paleontologist Mark Norell has pointed out, the fossil never passed peer review, and the scientists involved revealed the forgery.

MermaidYear: 1842 Con artist: P.T. Barnum Originally published in: New York Herald Now appears in: Monsters of the Sea by Richard Ellis (Also discussed in The Feejee Mermaid by Jan Bondeson) P.T. Barnum's skillful manipulation convinced thousands to see his "Feejee Mermaid." It was displayed for "positively one week only!" at a concert hall on Broadway. Years later, Barnum recounted with amusement how he had lured the crowds to see an "ugly, dried-up, black-looking specimen about three feet long . . . that looked like it had died in great agony." A generation earlier, on the other side of the Atlantic, the mermaid enjoyed similar notoriety. An American captain named Samuel Barrett Eades purchased the mermaid in 1822, paying for the prize by selling the ship he was supposed to sail. The ship's real owner, Stephen Ellery, was hardly amused. Ellery hired William Clift, a talented anatomist and zoologist, to examine the specimen. Clift found the mermaid was a skillful forgery incorporating the head on an orangutan, the teeth of a baboon, artificial eyes, and likely the tail of a salmon. Eades didn't welcome this news, and later hired his own "experts" to assure him the mermaid was genuine. After entertaining crowds of Londoners, the mermaid fell into obscurity for two decades before Barnum bought it.

SnakesNow appears in: Fossils: Evidence of Vanished Worlds by Yvette Gayrard-Valy and The Floating Egg by Roger Osborne For many years, the ground in the village of Whitby, England was strewn with baffling objects vaguely resembling coiled snakes. Local legend explained that years earlier, the area was crawling with snakes which St. Hilda (Abbess of the Whitby Abbey) beheaded and turned to stone. This coat of arms of the town of Whitby recalls that legend. In less benign tributes to the legend, locals "found" the original snake heads and reattached them to the snakes, then (not surprisingly) sold them. In fact, the heads were skillfully carved from stone. And the snakes? They are really fossil ammonites that went extinct at the same time as the dinosaurs

Fake FossilsYear: 1726 Con artists: J. Ignatz Roderick and Georg von Eckhart Originally published in: Lithographiae Wirceburgensis Now appears in: The Lying Stones of Marrakech by Stephen Jay Gould In the early 18th century, Johann Bartholomew Adam Beringer, a professor and physician from Wu"rzburg, published a book documenting "fossil" finds from a nearby mountain. His finds included everything from spiders on their webs to lizards with their skins intact. Legend has it that Beringer was the object of a joke by his students, but he was actually defrauded by two of his colleagues. When Roderick and Eckhart learned that Beringer intended to publish his finds, they nervously warned him that the fossils were fake, but by then Beringer was a man with a purpose. Although Beringer mistakenly assumed the fossils were natural, not carved, he refused to speculate any further, instead publishing his finds for others to analyze. Based on today's understanding of fossils, Beringer's mistake seems remarkably stupid. In his time, however, the process of fossilization was poorly — if at all — understood. Whether fossils were organic in nature or the results of the same forces that made rocks themselves was not yet known.

PiltdownYear: 1911 Originally appeared in: Several hundred publications Now appears in: Human Origins: The Search for Our Beginnings by Herbert Thomas (Discussed in detail in The Piltdown Forgery by J.S. Weiner) Perhaps the best known case of scientific fraud, the Piltdown Man was believed to be the earliest-known human from Western Europe. In fact, it was the jaw of an ape (with filed teeth) paired with a human skull. Amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson collected a skull fragment in 1911, and claimed that workmen digging in the gravel pit where the fragment was found had given him another piece years earlier. More excavations turned up more material. Skeptics who suspected that the skull and jaw came from two different animals were flummoxed at the 1915 find of a second individual (Piltdown II) two miles away. Many (planted) animal fossils from the area corroborated Piltdown Man, the most ridiculous being a "bone tool" that proved to be a cricket bat. And yet the Piltdown forgery was far from amateurish; the perpetrator(s) understood human and ape anatomy, fossils of "contemporary" fauna, and even the gravel beds where the fossils were collected. It wasn't until 1953 that three scientists (Sir Wilfrid Le Gros Clark, Kenneth Oakley and Joseph Weiner) uncovered the hoax. Even now, the perpetrator is unknown. Besides Dawson, suspects include English anatomist Sir Arthur Keith and British Museum employee Martin Hinton. Some speculation has even fingered Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame. Exposure of the Piltdown fraud helped pave the way for acceptance of genuine hominid fossils, such as Raymond Dart's Australopithecus africanus, whose implications (evolution of bipedalism before big brains) had been "disproven" by Piltdown.

Dragon from RayYear: 1613 Scientist/artist: Ulisse Aldrovandi Originally published in: De Piscibus Now appears in: Merchants and Marvels edited by Smith and Findlen In his posthumously published book on fish, Aldrovandi didn't carry out a hoax, but instead showed how it could be done. This illustration showed a ray cleverly modified to look like a dragon. In fact, some collectors actually prized creations like this, even when they were known to be forgeries.

SkvaderYears: 1874-1918 Con artists: Ha*kan Dahlmark, Halvar Friesendahl, Carl Erik Hammarberg and Rudolf Granberg Now appears in: The Historical Preservation Society in Medelpad This cross between a female hare and a wood grouse cock was allegedly shot by Dahlmark in 1874. On his birthday in 1907, Dahlmark's housekeeper asked her nephew, Friesendahl, to paint a picture of it. Before his death, Dahlmark donated the painting to the historical society. Inspired to create a "real" skvader, the society's new director, Hammarberg, contacted Granberg, a talented taxidermist, and Granberg obliged him by making a stuffed specimen. In 1918, Hammarberg wrote an article in the local newspaper about the rare skvader, which, thanks to the sale of 3,000 postcards, would soon develop a worldwide reputation. Although some visitors to the historical society's museum are disappointed to find the skvader isn't genuine, few people have taken it very seriously.

Source : iScience Journal

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